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Henri Matisse

French, 1869 - 1954

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Introduced to painting while recovering from appendicitis at age 19, Henri Matisse abandoned his job as a law clerk to compose conventional Dutch-inspired still lifes and interiors using a somber palette. After moving from northern France to Paris in 1891, his colors brightened and his style evolved under the influence of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and others.

In 1904, while working along the Mediterranean coast, he fully liberated his colors in bold hues that eliminated shadows and defined forms. This experimentation—dubbed fauvism (from “wild beasts”)—was a brief but crucial step in Matisse’s lifelong goal of expression through color. As he traveled throughout North Africa and Moorish Spain from 1906 to 1913, his sense of abstraction heightened, expressed in mural-sized canvases that explored color intensity in relation to human form and studio objects.

During the 1920s, Matisse reverted to more conventional modeling, cohesive space, and blended brushwork, depicting figures in exotic costumes in the textile-sheathed interior of his Nice studio. With a commission to design a mural for the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, however, Matisse reentered the avant-garde fray.

Throughout the 1930s, his paintings became more boldly decorative as the illusion of depth was compressed into solid planes of color. This culminated in his return to the cutout technique, which he had first explored in designing costumes and scenery for the Ballets Russes in 1919. By cutting sheets of paper painted with meticulously mixed hues, Matisse “painted with scissors.” These ensembles allowed him to continue creating art despite his failing health once he reached in his early 70s. He also translated these shapes—along with a rekindled love of drawing—to book arts.

Throughout his life, Matisse published personal artist statements and dedicated at least an hour a day to writing letters to friends and family. These written and visual records illuminate a man consumed by color, fascinated by pattern, and enamored with the act of creation in wide-ranging materials and forms.

Works of Art

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